Blue Eagles and Deja Vu

Wriston, Walter B.


As we approach the Bicentennial of our Republic, it is useful to remember that our Founding Fathers faced hard times -- much harder than those which are with us today. They, like we, had to make some tough choices. Thomas Jefferson expressed the problem in a nutshell: "We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed."

The great principles of our government laid down by our Founding Fathers embody a vast distrust of centralized governmental power, and an unswerving dedication to the proposition that government rests on the consent of the governed.

No sector of our society has been more vigilant than the press in keeping that proposition always before us. Nevertheless, whenever we create the conditions which cause our system to appear to falter, whether through inflation or corruption, people who would destroy our liberty press forward with plans the Founders rejected but dressed in a new vocabulary. A good many years ago, John Randolph foresaw the danger and put it this way: "The people of this country, if ever they lose their liberties, will do it by sacrificing some great principle of government to temporary passion."

Today passions abound in the land; as the heat rises our memory of fundamentals seems to fade. We forget that the traditional optimism of the American people is an absolute essential to a democracy. We hear a rising chorus of attack upon the unique American economic system, though it has produced both the highest standard of living and the largest measure of personal liberty in the history of mankind.

People who should know better begin to waffle about human freedom and in the moment of passion that John Randolph feared even suggest that some form of dictatorship may not be so bad after all. In the 1930's Senator David Reed from Pennsylvania voiced it bluntly:

"If this country ever needed a Mussolini, it needs one now." The admiration in the United States for the way Mussolini made the trains run on time was widespread. The New York Times in May of 1933 reported that the atmosphere in Washington was "strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts, of Moscow at the beginning of the Five-Year Plan. ..The new capital. . . presupposes just such a highly centralized, all inclusive government as is now in the making." In the 1930's it began to look more and more as if we would sacrifice some great principle and lose our liberty.

The resident philosopher in Washington in those days was Rexford Guy Tugwell. Like his current counterparts, Tugwell expressed contempt for the consumer's ability to choose, and wanted large state-controlled corporations along fascist lines. It was all very simple and logical. He put it this way: "When industry is government and government is industry, the dull conflict deepest in our modern institutions will be abated." This old idea has now been revived with a new name: we now call them "benchmark" corporations. By 1984, George Orwell tells us the concept will be set to music in a telescreen jingle that goes: "Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me--"

The first major step that this nation took toward merging government and industry, and toward the total abandonment of the free market system, was the enactment of the legislation that created the National Recovery Administration. The NRA with its famous Blue Eagle symbol soon began grinding out hundreds of "codes" repealing economic freedom and arbitrarily fixing wages, prices, and hours.

In the temporary passion of that moment, many businessmen welcomed the idea of controls and were openly pleased with the idea of an escape from competition. "Codes" in the l930 's were the equivalent of the current euphemism "guidelines." These "codes" ultimately affected some 22 million workers. Like all schemes which require people to behave in a way they would not act of their own free will, force eventually has to be used against the populace. Since the NRA codes required citizens to make decisions which were contrary to their own economic interests, penalties for noncompliance had to be severe. Tailors were arrested, indicted, convicted and sentenced because their prices for pressing a pair of pants were a nickel below the relevant NRA code. Farmers were fined for planting wheat that they themselves are on their own farms. Barbers who charged less than the code rate for a shave and haircut were subject to fines up to 500. Even the village handyman was prosecuted, since he did not fit in under the multiple wage-and-hour scale set up by the codes.

The complexity of the codes soon agonized labor as well as management. The average factory worker who had been earning 25 a week was cut back to 18.60 under NRA codes. As a result, strikes became a way of life and auto workers, frustrated by red tape, began calling the NRA the National Run Around. When the textile code authority cut production in the mills in 1934, another great strike began in the South. Before the strike ended, the National Guard had been called out in seven states and scores of textile workers were killed and wounded.

A few months later, NRA Administrator General Hughie Johnson resigned under a storm of criticism -- or, as he phrased it himself, "a hail of dead cats."

As was the case with the rights of minorities in the 1950's and 60's, or with Watergate in the 70' s, a few had the courage to challenge the power of the state. A fairly small company, the Schechter Poultry Company, refused to observe NRA standards of "fitness" governing the slaughtering of chickens. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the NRA was unanimously declared unconstitutional. The Court wrote: "Such a delegation of powers is unknown to our law and it is utterly inconsistent with the Constitutional prerogatives and duties of Congress." After the decision was read, Justice Brandeis told one of FDR's legal aides: "I want you to go back and tell the President that we're not going to let the government centralize everything." That was a call to return to fundamental American principles.

That time around we were rescued from the temporary passion of the moment by the Supreme Court. For such actions, the justices were reviled as the Nine Old Men. Fortunately, they were old enough to remember the tyrannies of the past, and struck down the attack on individual freedom even though it was wrapped in a package labeled "progress." As if in direct reference to John Randolph, the Court said: "Extraordinary conditions do not create or enlarge constitutional power."

Today, just as we are beginning to win the battle against inflation and recession, the classic attacks on individual freedom are being launched with new vigor. In place of the NRA and Mussolini's Blackshirts of another era, we have new groups with new names selling the same worn-out concept of government planning as "progress."

The current effort to peddle the theories of Tugwell is being quarterbacked by an organization called the Initiative Committee for National Economic Planning. Its members, businessmen, academicians and labor leaders, are all well-intentioned people who should know better. Their program, if adopted, could bring about the step-by-step destruction of the free market system, and, as a consequence all personal liberty. The opening statement of the Initiative Committee expresses the usual doubt about whether our tried and tested system provides "the best hope for combining economic well-being and personal liberty."

Like central planners in the past, the new breed speaks euphemistically of "plenary power" and obtaining a "mandate." They suggest that a "five year plan" would be "voluntary" but add that it might require a "legislative spur." They imply that they would not set specific goals for General Motors, General Electric, General Foods, or any other individual firm but would "try to induce" the relevant industries to do their bidding.

, an ardent advocate of central planning in 1975 as in 1933 (except of course for the media) has fully endorsed the idea of government planning as "a means to help private industry to make its own planning decisions.. .without government coercion." There is no case government planning not implemented the end by coercion.

If the proponents of central planning came right out and said they wanted to create an economic police state, their cause would never get off the ground. So, they resort to doublespeak, as Mario Pei so aptly called it, the usual camouflage for the ultimate use of force against the individual. Lugwig von Mises summed it up when he wrote: "All this talk: the state should do this or that ultimately means: the police should force consumers to behave otherwise than they would behave spontaneously. In such proposals as: let us raise farm prices, let us raise wage rates, let us lower profits... the ultimately refers to the police. Yet, the authors of these projects protest that they are planning for freedom and industrial democracy."

Perhaps the oldest lesson of history is that an assault on one aspect of freedom is an attack on the whole, as the framers of the Constitution were well aware. To think that the bell that tolls for economic freedom, does not toll for academic freedom or for freedom of the press is a delusion, and a dangerous one. The vigilance of the press which helped out some of the misdeeds of Watergate should be equally focused on the economic non sequiturs coming from some of your city's prominent citizens.

Attacks on the system that has produced our relative affluence as well as our freedom come in part from people seeking power, and in part from a failure to understand the American experience. Pulitzer Prize historian Daniel J. Boorstin put it this way: "There is an increasing blame the United States for lacking many of the ills which have characterized European history. Our lack of poverty is called materialism, our lack of political dogma is called aimlessness and confusion."

All current proposals for a managed economy rest on an underestimation of the intelligence of the American people. They assume that you and I are just not smart enough to decide how to spend the money we earn. The decision must be made for us by a wise government. Those wonderful people who brought us wage and price controls, which so severely disrupted our economy, now wish to extend the chaos on a permanent basis. The intellectual arrogance of those who would substitute their judgment for that of the American people is amazing. As incredible complexity of American life begins to dawn on the would-be government managers, as it did in fact ultimately dawn on the Administrator of the NRA, ever increasing pressure has to be applied to make a reluctant citizenry conform. The clash between government economic planning and personal liberty is inevitable because, in the end, government allocation of economic and intellectual resources requires -- ultimately -- the use of force. No agency, for example, could have regulated our railroads into bankruptcy as did the I.C.C. without such power. This power must be continuously increased to block opposition, to generate public acceptance, and suppress doubts about the competence of the planner.

Last year's Economic Summit should have made it obvious to all the world that experts do not agree. No plan which covers a continent with the infinite variety of America and contains thousands of parts, can possibly be agreed upon by experts and certainly not by a majority of the people. Even if by some miracle we could get all the fiscalists and monetarists to concur, the ultimate decisions would be political much more than economic. It would be impossible to get a majority vote in the Congress on every item in the economy which would have to be allocated, priced, and assigned priority. Since both political and economic agreement is a virtual impossibility, these decisions have to be delegated to the planner and thus can never represent the will of the majority. Such action by definition destroys the premise on which American democracy rests.

The First Amendment is one of the most sweeping definitions of freedom of the citizen against his government ever enacted anywhere in the world. As in the past, it must now be guarded jealously by all sectors of our society. What I am suggesting to you today is that you must examine with great care and skepticism the proposition that government regulation of goods and services is a legitimate function of government. It is predicated upon the dogma that consumers lack the intelligence to make choices, but that they are capable of sorting out a good idea from a bad one without government help. You should question the logic which leads some people to conclude that a so-called truth-in-advertising law is good, but a truth-in-media law is bad. On a purely logical basis it is hard to sustain the argument that the public is unable intelligently to choose between competing dog foods without government help, but is competent to sort out the true meaning of a Senator' s speech.

The Press, along with the rest of this country, generally has come to the conclusion that the performance of government at all levels leaves a great deal to be desired. Bureaucracy has never been synonymous with efficiency. There is a growing perception across the country that government regulation of goods and services has often tended to promote monopoly, raise the price levels, and smother innovation. Professor Houthakker of Harvard made this point dramatically at the Economic Summit by listing 43 areas he thinks the government should deregulate. Lest you think that you are exempt, more and more educators are beginning to perceive the hand of government within their own campuses, despite the long tradition of academic freedom. Academicians are learning the old lesson that if you take the King's shilling, you will do the King's bidding. We already have government very much in the broadcast field, although some people feel this has not been objected to as strongly by the print media as one might have hoped or wished. If you accept the proposition that government intervention in the dissemination of ideas is bad, which is one I strongly hold, you must then review in your own mind whether it makes any sense to argue for government intervention in the individuals' choices among goods and services. Whatever conclusion you come to on this proposition, you should not fool yourself that economics and politics live on separate islands; in the end our freedom is indivisible.

One of our least admired presidents was characterized as one who approached power with "muffled oars." Those of you who depend for your existence on the First Amendment should sensitize your ears to pick up the sound of muffled oars seeking to approach power through a planned economy. This suggestion is in accordance with sound liberal doctrine as expressed by Woodrow Wilson: "The history of liberty is a history of limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it."

  • The document was created from the speech, "Blue Eagles and Deja Vu," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Society of American Business Writers on 5 May 1975. The original speech is located in MS134.001.002.00034.
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